Sten Hankewitz: Sputnik is not journalism and its employees are not journalists

According to the International Federation of Journalists, the employees of the Kremlin propaganda channel, Sputnik Estonia, have received a warning from the Estonian Police and Border Guard to stop cooperating with the International Information Agency Rossiya Segodnya by 1 January 2020; the federation condemned the threats, but without realising Sputnik is not a media organisation and its employees are not journalists, the deputy editor-in-chief of Estonian World, Sten Hankewitz writes.

The International Federation of Journalists is saying in its 19 December press release that “journalists from the Russian Sputnik news agency in Estonia are facing threats from the Estonian authorities, who have demanded they stop cooperating with the agency’s parent organisation “Rossiya Segodnya.” The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) condemned the threats.”

“Employees of Sputnik Estonia received a warning from the Estonian Police Department and the Border Guard, to stop cooperating with the International Information Agency Rossiya Segodnya by January 1, 2020. According to the news agency, the Estonian government justified this move by mentioning sanctions imposed by the EU on March 17, 2014 against a number of Russian individuals and legal entities in the light of events in Ukraine,” the organisation says in its press release.

“On the website of Sputnik News, Rossiya Segodnya announced it will turn to the United Nations (UN), and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) with an appeal to assess the situation,” the IFJ continues.

Journalists should always have the right for the freedom of speech

According to the vice president and the executive secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists, Tim Shafir, these threats are an unprecedented fact of pressure on the media.

“The Estonian Police and Border Guard Board actions are a gross violation of the journalists’ rights and freedom of speech. The threat of criminal proceedings only for the fact of cooperation with the Russian media goes beyond all existing norms. What is particularly surprising is the fact that the majority of Sputnik Estonia office employees are Estonian citizens, so we can observe that the government applies repressive actions not only to the Russian media, but also to Estonians.”

That is all fine and well. Journalists should always have the right for the freedom of speech. No one, no institution, no government should ever threaten journalists because of their reporting. We, the journalists, who are actually journalists, always report the truth and facts, we’re servants of the people; we humbly bring you the events of the world and leave you to judge their merit.

But the fact is, Sputnik is not a news agency, it’s not journalism. Sputnik is, first and foremost, a propaganda channel for the Kremlin. It’s Russian president Vladimir Putin’s personal PR agency.

A slick and internet-savvy outlet of Kremlin propaganda

The New York Times, the flagship of journalism, has said Sputnik engages in deliberate disinformation. Sputnik has often been described as a Russian propaganda outlet. In early 2019, CNN Business reported that Facebook had taken down hundreds of pages on its social media platform which passed as independent news sites but were in fact run by Sputnik employees. Sputnik called the move “clearly political in its nature and… practically censorship”. No wonder they are now saying the Estonian Police and Border Guard Board is unfairly threatening them.

But the proof that Sputnik is the propaganda channel of the Kremlin doesn’t end here. The Foreign Policy magazine has described it as a slick and internet-savvy outlet of Kremlin propaganda, which “remixes President Vladimir Putin’s brand of revanchist nationalism for an international audience… beating a predictable drum of anti-Western rhetoric”.

Russian president Vladimir Putin awarding Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of Rossiya Segodnya that runs Sputnik (photo by the office of the Russian president).

The Washington, DC-based think tank, the Center for European Policy Analysis, has said Sputnik spreads biased information and invites only a select group of commenting politicians, especially those known for their pro-Russian views. According to Kevin Rothrock, the Russia editor for Global Voices, Sputnik “acts as a spoiler to try and disrupt or blur information unfriendly to Russia, such as Russian troops’ alleged involvement in the war in Ukraine”.

The Daily Beast has made historical comparisons to Pravda, once the official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in particular Sputnik’s alleged apologia for Joseph Stalin and denial of the 1932-1933 famine in Ukraine known as the Holodomor.

Sputnik is a PR-organisation of the Kremlin, not journalism

There is a plethora of evidence that Sputnik is a propaganda channel of the Russian regime, and yet, the International Federation of Journalists still thinks Sputnik is a media channel and its employees are journalists.

The actual fact is, Sputnik is an organisation that is under the control of the Kremlin, posing as a media outlet – which it is not. And the Estonian authorities are trying to keep it at an arm’s length from the real life because, everything Sputnik says or does harms Estonia, the Western world, and their national and security interests. And the fact that some organisations, like the International Federation of Journalists, don’t understand this just proves how useless they are in defending what they’re supposed to defend – the freedom of the press, the freedom of speech, and the journalists – real journalists – right to do their jobs.

The media and the journalists are always free in what they’re doing. That’s how it’s supposed to be. We report the facts, we report the truth. We do it with integrity; we take pride in this integrity. The moment anyone, and I mean, anyone threatens our liberty to report the facts, I will be the first one to scream from the top of my lungs that the freedom of the press is being violated. I’ve done so before.

Threatens the national interests of any free nation

But Sputnik is not journalism. It’s a PR-organisation, called to life by the Kremlin, by the Russian regime that has committed more crimes against its own people and its neighbours than one can count. It’s a propaganda institution of a state that forcibly occupied parts of Georgia and Ukraine; a state whose predecessor (the one whose collapse was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe”, according to the Russian dictator, Vladimir Putin) forcibly occupied Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, part of Finland, and transformed many of its neighbours to satellite states with no right to self-determination.

It’s a propaganda institution of a rogue state by any means. The employees of the said PR-organisation are not journalists – they’re foreign agents, working for a regime hostile towards democracy, freedom and all the other rights we hold dear.

The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover: Sputnik claims on its Facebook page that it talks about what “the others are silent on”. In real life, it spreads propaganda by the Kremlin and disguises it as “journalism”. Photo by Vadim Antsupov/Sputnik Estonia.

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